Monday, July 25, 2011

What's my deal with Carbs?

Me and Carby McCarberson have long had a love-hate relationship.  Growing up in the nineties, when high-carb low-fat diets were all the rage and sugar supposedly had no ill effects on one's health other than cavities, I was a major carb-oholic.  Loved the stuff.  I remember eating cereal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Cereal actually used to be my number one food group.  With fruit a close second.  Protein?  Eh, not so much.  Such a low-fat diet, surely I was the picture of health!  What could possibly be wrong with eating a lot of carbs?  As long as you didn't overeat, and as long as you consumed little or no fat, your diet and health would not only be fine, but superb!  Right?   Well years later now, looking back at my teenage/college/post-grad diet, I realize what glaring deficiencies there were, and how those deficiencies affected my overall health and well-being.  When you are deficient in one area, you'll probably overcompensate in another.  I ate little to no protein or fat, but went wayyyyyyyy overboard on starches, carbs, and fruits.  I've always eaten lots of veggies, so that thankfully has never been an issue.  I wondered how and why I had trouble losing those stubborn 3-5lbs even if I was exercising and eating the "right" diet.  So what if instead of dinner I had frosted cheerios?  Or if I ate a bag of candy instead of lunch?  A calorie is a calorie and there's nothing wrong with sugar!

So it's no wonder that people have such an inherent misunderstanding about carbs, refined carbs, sugars, and so on.  This information has never even been questioned in my generation, until recently.  It was just a fact of life.  Eat a diet of mostly carbohydrates.  No distinction made between refined and unrefined carbohydrates.  Sugar and fats were lumped together at the top of the pyramid to be consumed "in moderation," yet again, no distinction being made between poly, mono, trans, and saturated fats.  Omega 3's?  Yeah right.

I have always been on the slim side, and I've always fluctuated.  Like a lot of us, feeling bloated, sluggish, and irregular (ew sorry) was the rule not the exception.  I accepted that this was just my lot in life and part of being a living organism with a digestive system.  And I reconciled myself to the fact that I would have to eat a teensy little bit, every day, my whole life, to remain a certain weight.  I wasn't blessed with a fast metabolism like so many others, and that was just the deal for better or worse.

In my mid-twenties I started having issues with hormonal imbalance, noooooooo clue what it could possibly be from.  Doctors could not have cared less and had no explanations.  I didn't fit the profile of women who usually suffered from hormonal imbalance, but, stranger things had happened.  I had no idea what to do or how to deal with it.  So I didn't.  Then when I got pregnant, even weirder still, I failed the Glucose Tolerance Test.  Once again, I did not fit the profile of women who developed Gestational Diabetes.  At all!  But I followed my new diet meticulously and thoroughly, and memorized all kind of different numbers, values, and statistics to get me through the final 12 weeks of pregnancy, until I gave birth and could return to my "normal" eating habits.  Sort of like how you cram for a test and memorize a bunch of info you don't understand, only to immediately forget everything you just memorized.  Memorization and comprehension are not the same thing.  I had absolutely zero understanding of my condition or how what I ate affected my overall health.  That they were even linked at all never occurred to me.  Why should it?  I had always eaten a "healthy diet."

When my daughter was three months-old, and I started having that familiar dizzy, light-headed carb overload feeling, and I decided to start testing my sugars.  Well, wouldn't you know, they were high.  Going back to my "normal" diet was not an option.  I could no longer handle sugars and carbs like before.  Why?  Why was all this happening?  My doctor(s) told me I was nuts.  I didn't fit the profile and I was making it all up.  When I described my symptoms and glucose levels, they were convinced I was stretching the truth or misunderstanding the readings.  Um, when your glucometer says 150, its kind of difficult to misunderstand.  I do know how to count, despite my not having a PhD.  I started eating like I had on my GD diet.  Low carb, high protein.  It was a diet of denial and can'ts.  Can't eat that, won't eat that, shouldn't eat that.  I felt miserable and isolated and like a freak.

So finally, I did what I should have done years ago.  Got educated.  Started reading and researching.  Learning about diet and nutrition.  There is still a tremendous amount that we don't know.  A never ending series of questions and theories that only lead to more questions.  But it's fascinating!  And we are so lucky to be living in a time when people are really starting to pay better attention to what we eat, how it fuels us, and how it affects our whole health.  I now realize that most likely, through a combination of a poor diet and a predisposition to insulin imbalance (on my mother's side), I arrived at my current situation.  Some people are just less tolerant of sugars and carbs than others, but until recently you would never have known it.  Daily life required enormous amounts of labor and exercise, your muscles burning up tons of glucose and calories all day long as fuel.  Too much sugar in the blood would quickly be used up by working muscles.  But for most of us, that is no longer the case, hence the modern phenomenon of the diabetes explosion. 

Finally, I made the leap to Grain-Free.  At first, I did it out of convenience.  Cutting out grains would mean I didn't have to think and plan ahead quite so much with my carbs.  If I quit eating grains altogether, I really didn't need to worry about how many carbs would be in my next meal and how it would affect my blood sugar.  I was also growing tired of tirelessly logging carbs and calories.  Like anything else, it was no fun in the beginning.  If you don't eat grains, I surmised, what was left?  It turns out, quite a lot.  The decision had so many wonderful but unexpected side-effects!  My metabolism sped up, my energy revved up, the light-headedness and headaches and sugar-highs were over.  I could eat more, and I no longer counted calories!  And best of all, no more icky bloated feeling!  Ever!  Even after a big meal.  Impossible right?  I swear, it's not.  Think about the last time you ate an enormous salad of healthy vegetables, greens, and protein.  Like, a huge salad.  Did you feel bloated and gross after?  Even though it was a ginormous salad?  Probably not.  The salad probably had a ton of nutrients in it, combined with a lot of water, which made you pee and detox out a bunch of other garbage that was in your system.  That's how you can feel all the time!  Anyways- that's my perspective, and my own experience.

My preaching has really started to annoy me though, and is quite honestly making me a little sick- so I'll try to cut it out, and finish up.  Last night, reading Good Calories Bad Calories, there was a part I really found interesting, which I had never heard about before.  If you and your girlfriends are like mine, and are constantly bitching and moaning about feeling gross and bloated and worried about finding shirts that mask the bloatedness without causing people to ask if you're pregnant- then listen to this:
"It is now well-established that a low-carbohydrate diet is followed by the excretion of water and that carbohydrate ingestion leads to retention of both water and salt."  Furthermore, "with diets predominantly carbohydrate there is a strong tendency for the body to retain water, while with diets predominantly fat there a strong tendency for the body to lose water...  Eating carbohydrate prompts the kidneys to hold on to salt, rather than excrete it.  The body then retains extra water to keep the sodium concentration of the blood constant.  So, rather than having water retention caused by taking in more sodium, which is what theoretically happens when we eat more salt, carbohydrates cause us to retain water by inhibiting the excretion of sodium that is already there.  Removing carbohydrates from the diet works, in effect, just like... diuretics, which cause the kidneys to excrete sodium, and water along with it."

So if for no other reason than you are tired of wearing those idiotic flowy shirts and then feeling self-conscious that everyone is looking at you and wondering if you're pregnant, try going grain-free for a couple of weeks and pay careful attention to how you feel, and how you look.  And read a couple books, you might enjoy it!  Lastly, I apologize for using grains and carbs interchangeably.  They are not the same thing.  Cutting out grains does not mean cutting out all carbs.  That would be next to impossible and highly inadvisable.  Healthy, complex and high-fiber carbohydrates are found in fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, and legumes.  But confining your carbohydrate intake to the aforementioned foods will greatly reduce your total carbohydrate intake, and you'll find your health much-improved in the process.  I think it's clear I'm no expert, I'm not a scientist or a doctor.  I'm just one person with my own experiences that I'm so thankful to have FINALLY learned something from.  I'm having fun and enjoying the nutrition process.  And just in time, because S is ready for food!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this on your blog! we have a very similar story, and it's so true that there is a lot we don't know.
    My health problems have inspired me to go to grad school for Food Science and begin working on uncovering things that Mr. Taubes and Mr. Sisson and Mrs. Cordain have been discovering about carbohydrates and health.
    Great to see another person inspired as well! :) Long life and great health to you!